Chely Wright on Coming Out, LIKEME Lighthouse, and Her Upcoming Album “I Am The Rain”
Inspirer is celebrating inspirational and influential women in music with in-depth interviews. This project will share the stories behind the trailblazers and pioneers who paved the way for female artists.
Chely Wright crashed into the country music scene in the mid 90’s with her debut album “Woman in the Moon,” which earned her an American Country Music (ACM) award for Best Female Vocalist. She followed up that success with her first Top 40 hit “Shut up and Drive.” It was her album “Single White Female” that cemented Wrights place as a country music sweetheart. The album earned her nominations for the ACM award of Top Female Vocalist and Best Video, along with a Country Music Television (CMT) nomination for Female Video of the Year.
Through her years of being a country star, Wright kept a secret from the world. With the release of her memoir “Like Me” and documentary “Wish Me Away,” Wright became the first publicly “out” artist in country music. Now a LGBT advocate, and with a new album being released in September, the mother of twin boys talked with us about why coming out was so important, her Kickstarter campaign, and her continued love of country music.
Many musicians say they knew music was the path for them at an early age, was that the case for you?
Oh gosh, I’m sure like any other musician, I just had an early exposure to not only music but people around me loving music. We often mirror what we see in our household. If you grew up with a dad who’s into the stock market, chances are it’s going to pique your interests as well. Or in my case, a mom who was a student in songwriting and a student of what was good in music. It was mostly country, putting most of the weight on the musicians or songwriters themselves. Music for me wasn’t just about three minutes coming out of the record player.
They were bad, not going to lie. I started writing music at around the age of 4 while taking piano lessons. My parents took me to lessons because one day they found me playing around on a piano in a nursing home. They asked how I knew what to do and I said “watching grandma.” Part of my lesson was theory and the other was encouraging me to explore what I was doing already, my mother wanted that. I had so much fun thinking up melodies and cord progressions – I began taking lyrics from other songs and putting my own melodies to them. Lyrics were hard for me – when you’re 8 you don’t have much depth of language. I don’t think I wrote a really good, solid song until I was 17.
I’ve noticed a lot of songwriters say they started writing songs around 16-17.
Well sure, most songs are about love right? And I think that’s the time we all start identifying as a person and not a child. A lot of things happen for people at the age of 17.
Do you feel more artistically free being an independent artist versus being signed to a major label?
For me, there’s hardly a difference. When signed to a major label, you sign on for a shared objective. Make hits. That doesn’t mean I liked everything that happened when signed to a major label. There was more of a emphasis on my image and physical beauty. You know, making sure I had the right push up bra on at the right time. There were certainly times when I had to stand up and make some calls to the heads in charge but I was always treated with respect. I always felt heard.
You were the first country artist to come out as being gay, what made you decide to finally publicly come out?
By the time 2010 rolled around, it was the end of a three year planning period. So I really decided to do it in the summer of 2007. That’s when I began my book and building my new team – not only for my new music but to help me come out in an effective way, a way to use my voice. To show people who might never hear about LGBT issues or think they know a gay person. But, the thing that made me finally do it was fight or flight. I nearly took my life. We’ve all been faced with times in our lives where somethings got to give. I had invested so much in my hiding and how I was going to manage the lie. I put a lot of effort and resources – physically, mentally, emotionally into it and it’s a big decision to dismantle that lie. I just knew it can’t be good that at two o’clock in the morning I have a 9 mm gun in my mouth. By the grace of God, and I mean that, I didn’t pull the trigger. So, I had to come out. I have a lot of people ask me how they should come out, when is a good time. And I always say it’s worth it to hide right up to the moment it’s not.
When I put out my book, “Like Me,” it was hard to write about becoming such a skilled liar. It was terrible. I had people come up to me, that weren’t gay, say “I could never hold out as long as you, I’m not that good of a liar.” They don’t understand how ignorant that is because they’ve never had to hide something like this. When you feel like your whole existence is at stake, you will learn to lie. And learn to do it well. It’s about survival. But that’s why we have to share our stories.
Is that why you wrote your memoir “Like Me,” and made your documentary “Wish Me Away?” To share your story?
If you’re going to write a good memoir, you can’t write yourself as the hero. You have to write the truth. I mean, I could have tweeted, “Hey everybody, I’m gay!” But it’s the nuance of the story, right? What it’s like for a person of faith, for a person that grew up in a small mid-western town. What it’s like to lose your family, peers, or job. Because it’s more complicated than who you’d like to kiss. I wanted to tell the whole story in hopes that even if 100 people, who were country fans, would be intrigued enough or mad enough to pick up my book and see what I had to say. I’ve received hundreds and thousands of letters saying “I didn’t even think I knew a gay person and you made me think.” Then there are ones that say, “My daughter came out to me in 1980 and we kicked her out. Now I better understand what she was going through.” Not everyone gets to write a book to tell what it was like for them.
What is LIKEME Lighthouse?
It occurred to me that having a physical place to go and have a community feel was important. LIKEME Lighthouse is a brick and mortar LGBT community center in Kansas City. It’s my hometown and there wasn’t a place like it. We have a library of resources for parents, for kids with gay parents, and we have rooms for group meetings. If someone moves to town and needs to know where will rent to gay people, we have those resources, too. We’ve been open for 4 years now and more than once I’ve been reduced to tears by people who have said LIKEME Lighthouse has changed or saved their lives.
You launched a Kickstarter and raised $250,000 for your new album, “I Am The Rain,” which is the number one country campaign and one of Kickstarter’s top campaigns. That’s exciting!
Yeah, it was pretty cool. For a person like me who has made records for so long it’s such an odd thought, crowd-sourcing. It was something I said I wouldn’t do because that’s not how we do it, but we did and I imagined the success would be to get fully funded. As we began to do it and it unfolded, I realized that it wasn’t just about getting fully funded – the biggest benefit for me was hearing from new fans, old fans, and people could leave comments. All the reasons I love to make records. It was like getting a great big love note from my fans.
“I Am The Rain” will be released in September 2016.
Learn more about Chely Wright and her music on her official website: chely.com
Learn more about the LIKEME Lighthouse: http://likemelighthouse.org